Last month 76-year-old Martin Scorcese ignited a firestorm—at least amongst fuming fanboy types—when he shrugged that he’d “tried” to grok superhero movies, “But that’s not cinema…it isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” In his estimation, they were closer in gist and appeal to theme parks.
He elaborated further in a New York Times op-ed earlier this week, making the point that what he defines as “cinema” is a personal artistic expression (as opposed to the more corporate DC/Marvel package), and that admittedly any such definition is a “matter of personal taste and temperament.” Of course that scarcely eased the harrumphing amongst many who consider themselves very sophisticated to even know that a little something called Taxi Driver came decades before the similar current Joker.
Argue with his logic as you will. But in any case, Scorese hit a nerve, not only for people who are perfectly fine with comic-book movies dominating the movie industry now, but also for those who lament that grownup entertainment on the big screen is basically a thing of the past.
Sure, there are foreign and independent films. And yes, adults do go to comic book movies. But it is true that in the days of Taxi Driver and before, separate movies were made for youth and adults—the majority of Hollywood product wasn’t aimed at a one-size-fits-all, 13-year-old fanboy’s mindset, whether it inhabits an actual 13-year-old body or a middle-aged one. And it is also true that while something like Joker may indeed be edgy and challenging by the standards of superhero movies…it’s still pretty much a dumbed-down version of Taxi Driver by any other standard.
Those who share Scorcese’s general perspective (if not his specific taste) tend to rarely go to the movies anymore, because they perceive most of what’s there is “for kids.” (They also hate people talking and constantly looking at their phones, but that’s another issue.) The one time they might venture into a theater is towards year’s end, when the industry tends to unleash all the “grownup” movies it’s stinted on in prior months, since that period is the start of “awards season,” and such films often need “awards buzz” to gain any commercial traction.
This Friday brings a relative rarity: Two big new Hollywood movies aimed at adults, each ambitious and intelligent in their way, arriving with the burden of high expectations. One is Scorcese’s own The Irishman. The other, perhaps less obvious “prestige” film (not that it’s likely to attract much awards interest—horror films never do) is Doctor Sleep, a sequel of sorts to The Shining. It’s by Mike Flanagan, an excellent director still in the early stages of what will hopefully be a long career. Both are worth serious attention, though you may be surprised which I found more satisfying. Or maybe you won’t.
Perhaps best known now for the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House, Flanagan has been making independent features for nearly a decade, starting with 2011’s low-budget Absentia—a horror story of unusual subtlety and psychological depth, and as such a fair proclamation of his skill set. The several features he’s made since have been variably “personal,” including one for-hire franchise entry (Ouija: Origin of Evil, the rare sequel much superior to its predecessor), but all were interesting, well-crafted, suspenseful and intelligent.
Those aren’t qualities typically found in horror cinema, so it was with considerable excitement that genre fans heard he was getting his major-studio big break with Doctor Sleep, based on Stephen King’s 2013 novel. Flanagan’s adaptation does double-duty in functioning as a sequel to The Shining in both its best-known forms: The original book and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film, which King himself had very mixed feelings about.
Though popular, that movie was not particularly well-received at first, being considered a poor adaptation that perversely scuttled some of the novel’s seemingly sure-fire cinematic elements. To King’s massive reading audience, the film was too cold, too arch; Jack Nicholson was too Jack Nicholson (making his gradually-unraveling character seem crazy from the start), Shelley Duvall ludicrous, their marital dynamic laughable. Yes, individual sequences were striking, but so studied—and why couldn’t it all just be scarier?
It took a while for posterity to make its decision, as the book lost currency but the film found a permanent place in popular culture: Kubrick’s The Shining was a great film. Even more, it was a great Kubrick film, macabre, sardonic and masterful. If it wasn’t a very good version of Stephen King’s novel, so what?
Thus Doctor Sleep begins with scenes that purposely echo its screen predecessor (not counting the mediocre 1997 miniseries that was meant to be King’s improvement on it, and sure wasn’t), casting lookalike actors in scenes that resemble missing pieces from the 1980 film. Then we jump forward a few decades.
Little Danny Torrence is now an adult alcoholic (Ewan McGregor) whose very messed-up life stabilizes somewhat thanks to a Good Samaritan (Cliff Curtis) and AA. But as much as he’s buried the past, his ESP-like “shining” stirs at communications from an even more gifted little girl (Kyliegh Curran as Abra). Unfortunately, the latter also attracts attention from a roving clan of witchy folk led by an impressively cruel Rebecca Ferguson. They are near-immortal—and stay that way by devouring the souls of “special” people just like Abra and Danny. It takes a while (not that you’ll notice), but this story eventually heads exactly where you might expect: Back to the Overlook Hotel.
Unlike Kubrick, Flanagan is a competent craftsman rather than a visionary stylist. His strengths lie in the superficially “simpler” yet invaluable realms of taut storytelling and character dimensionality. Doctor Sleep isn’t an auteurist objet d’art (and yes, it could be scarier), but it sucks you in right away and doesn’t let go over 152 minutes’ course. It delivers an expansively satisfying tale of supernatural suspense that makes most of the year’s other endeavors in that realm look simple-minded or silly. (The two other most eagerly awaited films of 2019 amongst discerning horror fans, Midsommar and The Lighthouse from the respective directors of Herediary and The Witch, were both mannered disappointments, while most new mainstream horror features were just formulaically dumb as usual.) It is no mean feat that Flanagan pulled off a tribute to both Kubrick’s movie and a (reasonably) faithful King adaptation that nonetheless feels sturdily its own beast.
Released exactly a decade after Kubrick’s The Shining, Scorcese’s Goodfellas never had to wait for reevaluation—a lot of people thought it was a “classic” upon arrival. Do you think Goodfellas is one of the greatest movies ever? Then you are probably going to have no trouble applying the term “masterpiece” to the same director’s The Irishman, a long-aborning project that’s pretty much 3 1/2 hours more of the same, and in which the only thing that doesn’t feel thoroughly movie-Italian-American is the title. (And that titular figure is played by Robert DeNiro, who’s about as Irish as fettuccini alfredo.)
It’s a magnum opus for sure, another fact-inspired, decades-spanning crime chronicle, this time tracking the career of Frank Sheeran from post-WW2 meat truck driver to an enforcer for NE Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), then a union official/strongarm under Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Those dual loyalties eventually conflict, once the belligerent Hoffa refuses to accept his diminished stature after a prison stint. (This film has very definite ideas about what happened re: Hoffa’s infamous 1975 “disappearance”—and also suggests mob involvement behind JFK’s election, his assassination, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and other major national events.)
This is Scorcese country and then some, featuring actors he’s long worked with (Harvey Keitel also turns up), plus ones he might as well have (Bobby Cannavale, Ray Romano). There’s the requisite soundtrack full of oldies, albeit this time tilted towards the kind of lounge shlock favored by people who think western civilization peaked with the Rat Pack. There is violence, though it’s seldom graphic, and indeed The Irishman is somewhat muted all around, with little of this director’s trademark, wildly cinematic bravado—it is paced and staged in a fashion appropriate to a movie that ultimately is largely about aging and mortality.
That focus lends it some eventual poignance. But only because the director insists on raising issues of forgiveness and remorse—frankly, his characters do not appear to regret having lived lives that were brutal, corrupt and predatory. I don’t really share Scorcese’s endless fascination with the mob; such people aren’t all that interesting, let alone sympathetic. (And as if six seasons The Sopranos had never happened, the women here are so marginalized, they scarcely get any dialogue at all.) What’s more, the principal actors here are all in their mid-to-late 70s, and despite extensive computer-generated “youthification,” they are clearly far too old for their parts until the later going.
Despite its extreme length, The Irishman is steadily involving. But is it a great movie simply because it’s a long film by a great director, reprising many of his usual themes (and actors)? People worried that this Big Kahuna of gangster flicks, being a Netflix joint, might be insufficiently accessible on the big screen. But actually it might be better seen at home, where you can watch it in comfortable segments, with bathroom and dinner breaks. It doesn’t have the kind of epic feel or spectacular scale that requires an auditorium to fully appreciate—in fact I have no idea why a film that takes place mostly in restaurants and living rooms had to cost $160 million.
Should you see it? Well, sure. It’s a good movie. But at that length and with that price-tag, maybe “good” isn’t enough. Of course, if you’re already pre-sold on the whole package, you’ll probably experience the film as being exactly as much a career-culmination for all concerned as you want it to be. For me, I embrace Scorcese’s point about the preciousness of “cinema” such that it’s a little dismaying to note that his latest feels rather like quality TV.
Doctor Sleep opens today at Bay Area theaters, The Irishman at Embarcadero Center Cinemas (expanding to other theaters next week).